by Don Fitz
Published April 1, 2009 by Counterpunch
The election for mayor of St. Louis is only a few days away: April 7. The first big face-off between sitting Mayor Francis Slay, Green Party challenger Rev. Eton K. McCowan, and “independent” Maida Coleman was Sunday, March 29.
The online Saint Louis Beacon reported that “McCowan was the most aggressive of the three, repeatedly challenging the mayor’s performance and accusing the mayor of doing more harm than good.” The story detailed how McCowan, a black minister who preaches a fiery environmental sermon, hammered away at Slay for snubbing a stimulus package meeting with President Obama so he could attend a Mardi Gras parade. McCowan, who is also Public Service Director for SEIU Local 2000, denounced the mayor’s role in attacking public schools and the teacher’s union as well as heightening racial tensions by unjustly firing the City’s first black fire chief, Sherman George.
Mayor Slay had insulted the black community by refusing to participate in the primary debates at the historically black Harris Stowe State University. Green Party supporters were elated when McCowan clearly got the best of the reluctant mayor on March 29.
Later that night, McCowan, his wife Joyce, and their children, Sikudhani (13), Janey (11) and Elston Jr. (10), were awaken as their van burst into flames 30 feet from their home. Next door neighbor Christopher Jackson, whose yard also sports a Green Party “McCowan 4 Mayor” sign, reported that he heard a loud “Boom!” and saw flamers pouring from the van and a white Malibu “flying” around the corner as fire trucks arrived.
Rev. Elston K. McCowan at interview with neighbor Christopher Jackson, children Sikudhani, Janey & Elston Jr and Green supporters Sauda Imiri, Joe Civettini & Tim Kaminski. Photo by Don Fitz, March 31, 2009
With “Star Grace Missionary Baptist Church” painted on the side, the van had many purposes. Rev. McCowan used it every Sunday to pick up parishioners for church. It served as a second car for Elston and Joyce, parents with multiple jobs. And, during the last few months, it was the main organizing and literature distribution vehicle for the Green Party of St. Louis.
When news of the attack went out, Mayor Slay’s campaign manager Jeff Rainford snapped that any suggestion that the mayor might have anything to do with it was “asinine” and “stupid” and that it was a waste of their time to have to respond. Absent from his diatribe was any concern, compassion or pledge to vigorously investigate who might be behind the attack.
It’s not at all certain that the mayor’s team is above such tactics. The day after Maida Coleman announced that she would run against Slay as an “independent” (Coleman was a State Senator and on the Democratic Party’s State Committee), a family member had the windshield broken out of his car. A few weeks later a teacher who was passing out Coleman literature was attacked by five unidentified men.
The series of incidents are the basis for the request for an investigation that McCowan is sending to the US Justice Department. The complaint includes discrimination in voting practices in St. Louis. It charges that predominantly black wards have fewer voting locations, which forces people to travel farther to vote and stand in line longer. The Justice Department is also being informed that it is a violation of the St. Louis Charter for Judge Margaret Wash, a classified employee of the City, to be listed as a Slay endorser.
Concern that the fire bombing might be more than a random act is heightened by the vigorous nature of McCowan’s campaign. As a labor organizer, he has conducted an activist campaign stepping on quite a few toes.
A sore toe on Slay’s political footing is childhood lead poisoning. It has a perverse intertwining with the mayor’s efforts to privatize education by replacing public schools with charter schools. Allowing lead to remain in older public schools provides an argument for shutting them down.
When the elected school board would not do his bidding, Slay manipulated behind-the-scenes to remove its power by replacing it with an appointed Special Administrative Board (SAB). In October, 2008, Slay’s SAB representatives heard from parents questioning the movement of the Wilkinson Early Childhood Center to the highly lead contaminated Roe School. SAB appointees claimed that there was no money in the budget for lead abatement.
Green Party candidate McCowan organized a December 2 picket at Roe to draw attention to the crisis. His press statement pointed out that at the same time the unelected SAB was claiming that no money was available to remove lead, Francis Slay was caught spending $2 million to “beautify” the Grand Avenue bridge.
Two days after the picket, the SAB suddenly announced that they were looking in earnest for the $4.5 million needed to remove lead from 27 schools. On March 17, 2009 they announced they had found funds for lead removal, a discovery that would not have been made without Green Party pressure.
The Green Party has also ruffled the feathers of Ameren UE, which holds a monopoly on St. Louis electric power. Elston McCowan is the only candidate for mayor speaking out against a proposed second nuclear reactor in Callaway Missouri. Ameren UE is advocating the repeal of Missouri’s “No CWIP” law in order to force taxpayers to cover the cost of constructing a new reactor.
CWIP refers to “construction work in progress.” In 1976, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, Missouri voters approved a law prohibiting ratepayers from being charged for construction of a plant until it is “fully operational and used for service.”
“If Ameren gets its way on this, St. Louis residents could be paying for the nuke forever,” charged a McCowan press statement. “A second nuke at Callaway could cost us $9 to $15 billion. The number of people who could not pay their electric bills would skyrocket.”
St. Louis Greens believe that government should encourage new businesses to produce solar and wind power. Renewable energy companies can be started with a relatively small amount of capital. In contrast, power plants require billions. McCowan repeatedly explains that the two are incompatible: “Every dollar you throw at nuclear power is a dollar you take away from renewable energy.”
Neither the current mayor nor the “independent” Democrat see any need to make connections between a bloated military budget and decay in US cities. But the Green Party has been quick to link the destruction of St. Louis services like schools, hospitals, homes and mass transit to military spending.
When Israel began its attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008, Greens immediately called for a halt to the violence. The attacks followed Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza which caused immense suffering for its 1.5 million Palestinian residents by interfering with the importation of necessities of life including medicine, food and fuel.
On December 28, 2008 McCowan joined the Instead of War Coalition for a rally outside Missouri Senator Christopher (“Kit”) Bond’s office. He spoke of US complicity in selling arms to Israel, which he criticized for crossing the line from self defense to war crimes.
Along with other Green Party and Instead of War activists, McCowan worked to organize a January 10, 2009 march. The event attracted hundreds, including many Palestinians worried about their relatives and friends in Gaza.
In the 2005 St. Louis mayoral election, Willie Marshall, a retired black postal worker, received 21% of the vote. Leading the Green Party ticket, Marshall took over 40% of the vote in three black wards. The utility companies, Boeing’s St. Louis office and charter school profiteers don’t want that percentage to grow in the upcoming election.
Slay works closely with real estate developers to grab homes and businesses from low income owners who are largely black. The Green Party has hosted numerous events with a focus on “No eminent domain for private gain!” While the other candidates fret that “The mayor cannot stop evictions,” McCowan pledges “a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility shut-offs.” He vows to use the authority of the mayor’s office to instruct the sheriff to refrain from putting anyone out of their home.
The McCowan van was burned the same day that a third of St. Louis bus lines were shut down, the largest closing in the country. As other candidates were wringing their hands and promoting their “legislative experience” in dealing with problems, McCowan announced that, as mayor, he would fill 100 buses for a trip to Washington to demand that “If Congress can find trillions to throw at banking swindlers, it can surely find enough money to keep buses rolling for working people to get to their jobs.”
The McCowan-for-mayor campaign is not exactly popular with corporate shills like Civic Progress. Did one of them take time off from union busting to burn the McCowan van? Or was it a Slay crony? Or was it just someone wandering the neighborhood looking for a church van to burn?
News Channel 4 films burnt-out van of Rev. Elston K. McCowan. Photo by Don Fitz, March 31, 2009
At this point, we can’t be certain who torched it. But we do know that St. Louis is in the midst of a feeding frenzy of rich white men devouring every profitable chunk of the black community they can cram down their gullets. As Reverend McCowan says, “There are so many hogs feeding at the trough of wickedness, we aren’t sure which one came to dinner with a match.”
For the full platform of the Green Party of St. Louis or to learn more about the campaign, go to mccowan4mayor.com.
Don Fitz is Editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought and is a senior advisor to the McCowan Campaign.